The Kennedy Center Thursday night featured Teutonic offerings across a wide spectrum. In the Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra was performing Beethoven’s Ninth. Next door at the Opera House, an audience was Von Trapped in The Sound of Music. And at the far end, in the Eisenhower Theater, an East Berlin-born transsexual was squatting atop a respectable seated patron somewhere around Row L performing some extraordinarily lewd gyrations.
Be alert, ladies and gentlemen: Hedwig’s in D.C.
The indefatigable Scottish-born Euan Morton takes the frenetic title role in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s concert-style show, directed by Michael Mayer, with Hannah Corneau as Hedwig’s much-abused Elvoid sidekick boyfriend, Yitzhak. (Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls, as the Kinks put it.)
While production values are formidable, the performance drags terribly. The script might conceivably sustain 90 loose minutes, but this performance drifted perilously close to an intermissionless two hours. Only a few of the 11 songs (“Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love,” “Sugar Daddy,” “Wicked Little Town”) are remotely memorable, and they’re packed toward the first half. And in what largely amounts to a one-woman show, Hedwig’s often funny but sometimes pointlessly offensive patter can’t nearly carry the runtime.
The 1998 Off-Broadway version stepped up to Broadway in 2014, and its latest incarnation supplements the steady stream of sexual double entendres and bawdy asides with some pointed but predictable Trump references, particularly regarding the players’ dicey immigration status. It is also localized with some bits about gender-neutral restrooms in a gentrified H Street, merry-go-round traffic in Dupont Circle’s inner lanes, etcetera. Other aspects of the script, however – for instance the story of Hedwig’s rocker ex-boyfriend Tommy Gnosis killing a school bus of deaf children in a traffic accident while receiving oral pleasures – are just repugnant.
It’s a fine line, of course, in this cartoonish, tabloid odyssey, between droll and degrading, particularly when degradation is the name of the game. For instance, the colorful set by Julian Crouch, features a burned out shell of a sedan with an explosion in freeze frame on the backdrop. The reason? Hedwig is performing on the uncleared stage of Hurt Locker: The Musical, which opened and closed on the same night. Now that’s funny – particularly when you hear Yitzhak murmur a few dreadful lines from a discarded scrap of its sheet music.
In addition to having genuine rock-star pipes and presence, Morton quickly strikes a standup comic’s rapport with the audience. When he offered further lascivious attention to that bloke in the audience, the fella said, “I’m good.” “I think I should be the judge of that,” Hedwig retorted. Ba dum dum. A plant? Who cares. It was amusing.
Morton needs that bond to sustain our patience through Hedwig’s frankly somewhat tiresome tale, which she unfurls in her proudly self-centered passive-aggressive manner. Making the job even tougher, the sweet-faced but underused Yitzhak and the band are as surly and resentful as the Ramones on an especially pissy night, so Hedwig’s not just playing, for the most part, against a neutral emotional vibe on stage, but within a veritable vacuum of affect. That probably played out intriguingly in a shorter, smaller performance-art context in the Village back in the 90s. But it loses its edginess and sizzle in this bloated current incarnation, particularly in the formal Kennedy Center.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
closes July 2, 2017
Details and tickets
Overcompensating for that, lighting chief Kevin Adams blasts the audience with glaring LED’s and strobes that sometimes feel more like enhanced interrogation than entertainment. While some of Morton’s lines are swallowed up in Tim O’Heir’s sound design, it’s earplug time as the band swoops into tight, polished renditions but at annoyingly club-like volume.
Arianne Phillips’ costumes are a hoot. Needless to say, the band is leather-jacketed, but Hedwig’s sports wholesomely trashy midwestern denims; Cher-esque gowns, frills and furs; a Courtney Love slip-dress; then Iggy Pop-worthy leather briefs. Mike Potter’s hair creations, too, deserve a bow, and, in Crouch’s freaky shelved exhibit in “Wig in a Box,” they take one. Projected animation by Phosphene/John Bair is also beguiling.
Still, as Hedwig recounts her crossing of Iron Curtain, national, gender, and sexual borders, ending up in Junction City, Kansas, of all places, the pyrotechnics can’t overcome the work’s essential hollowness. “I want you to think of me as a theatrical hermit crab that just crawled into its new shell,” Hedwig tells us. So be it, but for all the character’s resilience and bravado, that shell is mighty fragile.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Book by John Cameron Mitchell. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Michael Mayer. Starring Euan Morton, with Hannah Corneau. The Angry Inch band: Justin Craig, music director, guitar, keyboards, vocals; Matt Duncan, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals; Peter Yanowitz, drums, vocals; Dylan Fusillo, drums, vocals; Tim Mislock, guitar, vocals. Presented at The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.